Last winter's warmer-than-average weather in the UK (although still the coldest since 2000/1) did nothing to harm sales of decongestants and cold treatments. And it proved a winter of content for the multiple grocers, which took further market share from the pharmacy sector.

The multiples' act in pharmacy is getting ever sharper, with strong doses of clearer in-store presentation helping consumers look after themselves.

Multiple grocers now account for slightly more than half of the winter remedies market by value.

And the day could yet come when their healthcare offer could often include a GP surgery, if Sainsbury's pilot at Epsom comes to fruition next year.

Suppliers, meanwhile, have been busy with new product development and more effective marketing.

The winter remedies category grew ahead of overall growth in the over the counter medicines market as a whole, coming in at £198m by 16 July, up 3.5% in value, according to TNS Worldpanel.

Sales of decongestants soared 19.4%, following a serious decline the year before, and cold treatments rose 5.6%, although cough and sore throat remedies proved a pain.

Out of a UK population of 48 million adults aged 16 and older, about 33 million will suffer from a cold or flu within the next 12 months. Of these people, about 13 million will reach for the medicine cabinet, with the average customer spending £6.72 [TNS]. Mintel says about half of these shoppers will use a cough or throat remedy, although one third will opt for painkillers instead.

Crucially, about half of winter remedy shoppers are ill at the time of their purchase, indicating that the market has a high distress factor.

In such markets, the most successful strategy is to enable consumers to find and buy what they want quickly through better merchandising and in-store signage, according to research from Lemsip owner Reckitt Benckiser.

This research also indicates that there is a high degree of brand loyalty in winter remedies, with 38% of consumers expecting to buy a well-known brand when they shop and 29% admitting to buying the same product every time. One third of winter remedy consumers are not concerned about the cost of a product providing it works, which is an aspect that the industry has acted upon.

According to TNS, the average price for each product was up 1.3% on the previous year, driven by more premium brands entering the category and retailers not over-promoting their cheaper own label ranges.

However, suppliers such as GlaxoSmith­Kline warn that the market may fail to live up to its full potential due to the price-deflationary impact of own label.

Retailers and suppliers are recognising that they can counter such a trend by driving more value into the sector through more ­effective merchandising with packs as well as store displays.

Brand blocking, using beacon brands or illustrative pack visuals, are all effective ways to help consumers find their chosen product. Thereafter, it's a case of merchandising by sector, for example, laying out the cold and flu sector by symptom, format, strength, flavour and size.

Sore throat remedies, on the other hand, need to be thought of as two separate submarkets: medicated remedies, comprising products such as Strepsils, Beechams and Halls Max, which are driven by performance, and everyday relief products, such as Tunes, Halls Soothers and Halls Mentholyptus, which are driven by taste, range and ability to soothe the throat, according to Cadbury Trebor Bassett head of customer relations Mike Tipping.

Tesco, the number two player in the market behind Boots, merchandises winter remedies as a category, but with each ailment area clearly differentiated.

Tesco's efforts to drive impulse sales this year involves rolling out off-shelf displays at the till point, and standalone cold and flu units in its Express stores to help customers more easily find the remedies they need.

It is also hoping to significantly increase the breadth and depth of range for the category, further developing its position as the destination shop in cold and flu.

Nevertheless, Tesco, like other grocers, is keen to up the ante in its growing own label business, and has introduced pharmacies across many stores.

The retailer has more than 200 in-store pharmacies and plans to raise this figure significantly by 2009.

As Chris Ray, senior buying manager at Tesco Healthcare, says: "The whole area of health and beauty benefits from the halo effect from the presence of a pharmacy."

Indeed, grocers with pharmacies performed better than those without last winter, IMS Pharmatrend reports, the former recording a 12.7% rise in the value of winter remedy sales compared with 9.1% in the latter.

As well as being flexible in terms of ingredients and pack sizes, suppliers also see well-trained staff as being instrumental to generating business.

Kathy Roe, senior brand manager for cold and flu at GSK Consumer Health, says: "We believe that consumers tend to ask for advice either when they are suffering very heavily, or when they experience a new symptom for the first time. Trained staff can have a significant impact upon sales."

GSK research also shows that dual-siting General Sales Licence (GSL) brands, ie those products that can be bought without the need for a prescription, in the pharmacy area can also result in consumers picking them up while waiting for the pharmacist.

The GSL sector is set to benefit this season from a raft of well supported launches targeting the convenience and 'max' sectors.

Rachael Lane, brand manager for Lemsip, says: "Consumers have confidence in GSL, that there is a choice and a product to suit them, and that it is available to them on a convenient basis."n